General Background to World War I
European History, 1871 to 1914
A Very Brief Overview

bismarckThe period from 1815-1914 is often referred to as the “Hundred Years’ Peace,” or “Pax Britannica.” From the end of the Napoleonic Wars at Waterloo in 1815 until the outbreak of war in 1914, Europe found itself relatively at peace. Compared with the long series of wars that had preceded 1815 and the carnage of the 20th century, it is not an unfair assessment. Beginning around 1870, however, events began to evolve in ways that threatened the long-standing peace, and a long slide toward eventual conflict began, though it was far from apparent at the time. Indeed, following the wars of German unification of the 1860s and the Prussian defeat of France in 1870-71, the rise of the remarkable statesman, Prince Otto von Bismarck of Prussia, seemed to promise a period of if not permanent then certainly long-lasting peace. Through wily manipulation of power (what he called realpolitik) and skillful diplomacy, Bismarck created an alliance system that, although built on the basis of international tension, nevertheless was very stable.

Through a series of treaties, conferences and diplomatic exchanges, most of which were conducted in varying degrees of secrecy, Bismarck carefully built his structure, knowing all the while that underneath it was fragile and indeed might well be upset someday. (He predicted that if and when it fell apart it would be due to “some damned foolishness in the Balkans,” and in fact he was right, though it happened some 20 years after his death.)

Part of the problems for Bismarck and the statesmen who followed him was that industry had begun to revolutionize the world by 1871. Following the American Civil war, with new weapons and techniques, it was clear that railroads, steamships, and other industrial advances were going to reshape not only war but defense policies and preparations for war as well. International economics—manufacturing, agriculture and trade—were becoming more complicated, and more centralized and unified nations brought a new and sharper edge to international competitiveness than had been true on more relaxed times. Competition also existed among rival political philosophies, from communism and socialism on one end of the spectrum to classical capitalism supported by more or less democratic regimes on the other. These competing ideas often co-existed within nations, not always completely peacefully. The world, in short, grew far more complicated as well as more dangerous between 1871 and 1914, as unparalleled industrial, economic and population growth and shifting demographics dominated the international scene. Science was opening new doors, urbanization was changing national landscapes, and huge migrations of peoples were altering the character of nations like the U.S.

Students of American history should recognize that the United States did not exist in a vacuum. Although most Americans were blissfully unaware of the complex events transpiring elsewhere in the world, it would not be long before those events would begin to make their impact felt even in America.  Just as President Theodore Roosevelt had extended American influence into the affairs of Europe and Asia, Europe and Asia would eventually drag the United States into their affairs, including the two great world wars of the 20th century.  And although the United States retreated into a position of isolationism between those two wars, in the end there would be no going back.  The 20th century would eventually become what some have called “the time of the Americans.”

Summary of Events leading up to World War I:

A thorough analysis of the events leading up to World War I would require far more space than is available here. In fact, a study of that time might take several weeks of a college course or more. As you read through these events, however, what you need to take from them is the fact that the world and grown incredibly complex during the last half of the 19th century. The great modern nation states of Russia, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Japan, and the United States were all players on the world stage, and each of those nations might gain or lose a great deal in the event of a full-scale war. That war did come about, and the road to it was extremely rocky. Outlined below are some of the major bumps in that road.

1870-71. The Franco-Prussian War. Germany is victorious, and under Chancellor Prince Otto von Bismarck Germany dominates central European affairs until 1914.

1873. Bismarck creates the Three Emperors' League—Germany, Austria, Russia.

1876. Serbia declares war on Turkey, Montenegro joins. Serbia's poor performance and requests for help lead to the Russo-Turkish War.

1877. Russo-Turkish War. Russia gets to gates of Constantinople. British threaten intervention if Russia occupies city, etc. French War Law causes “Is War in Sight?” article in Berlin—panic in Paris.

1878. The Congress of Berlin. Bismarck plays the “Honest Broker,” trying to offer each nation what it needs to feel secure. The Treaty of San Stefano fixes the Balkan picture for a time. The nation of Bulgaria is created. Romania, Serbia, Montenegro are independent. The “Concert of Europe” is the accepted condition.

1879. Alliance established between Germany and Austria, the foundation of Bismarck's alliance system. Reflects Bismarck’s fear of an anti-German coalition involving Russia. Germany is interested in getting Great Britain into an agreement, but the offer is mishandled, and Great Britain remains in “splendid isolation,” aloof from the Continent.

1881. Tsar Alexander III comes to power in Russia. The Alliance of Three Emperors is formed on a three-year term, renewed in 1884.

1882. Italy joins the German alliance with Austria, forming Triple Alliance. The pact lasts 5 years and is  renewed at 5-year intervals through 1915. Romania joins in 1884. Great Britain remains aloof, France is isolated.

1885. War between Serbia and Bulgaria leads to friction between Austria and Russia.

1887. Strong nationalist feelings of revenge for the Franco-Prussian War grow in France. First and second Mediterranean agreements (GB, Italy, Austria) establish status-quo in the Near East. Signing of secret Russian-German Reinsurance Treaty to replace Three Emperors' Alliance, which Russia refuses to renew.

1888. Death of Prussian Emperor William I and of Frederick III. Kaiser Wilhelm II, age 29, succeeds to the Hohenzollern throne as Emperor of Germany. Doesn't care for Bismarck or his policies. Bismarck sees the new Emperor as a young whippersnapper. Wilhelm is the first cousin of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, the grandson of Queen Victoria, and nephew of England’s Prince of Wales, soon to become King Edward VII.

1890. Kaiser Wilhelm dismisses Bismarck. The Reassurance Treaty with Russia is not renewed—the first chink in Bismarck's alliance system. Wilhelm begins a policy of naval expansion, Weltpolitik (making Germany the dominant European power.)

1894. Conclusion of negotiations between Russia and France, who form a military alliance to remain in effect as long as the Triple Alliance is in effect. Aimed at Germany, it provides for mobilization in case of war threats.

1895. Japan has imperial aims in China. Sino-Japanese War ends with the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895.

1897. War between Greece and Turkey.

1898. Spanish-American War gets U.S. into the imperial game. The U.S. annexes Hawaii, gets Guam and the Philippine Islands, putting the U.S. on an eventual collision course with Japan.

1899. First Hague Peace Conference is inconclusive. Outbreak of Boer War in South Africa.

1900. Boxer Rebellion in China. Besieged foreign legations are relieved by international expeditionary force. Russians use the opportunity to move 100,000 troops into Manchuria.

1901. Death of Queen Victoria. King Edward VII has a favorable disposition toward France, which irritates his nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm.

1902. Anglo-Japanese Alliance ends Britain’s “splendid isolation.” Guarantees independent China, etc.

1904. Outbreak of Russo-Japanese War. Japan startles the Western powers with a smashing naval victory at Tsushima Straits. Theodore Roosevelt arranges the Portsmouth Peace Conference, wins Nobel Peace Prize. Russia turns toward the Balkans. Anglo-French Entente Cordiale concluded. Germany suspicious. Moroccan troubles begin when German Minister von Buelow asserts German claims; Morocco will ultimately be French. France becomes convinced of Germany's bad intentions.

1905. First Moroccan crisis occurs when Kaiser Wilhelm II visits Tangier and makes an inflammatory speech. Revolt in Russia leads to Bloody Sunday, foretells revolution of 1917. Kaiser Wilhelm meets with Tsar Nicholas II (they are cousins) to ease tensions, but it comes to nothing.

1907. Franco-Russian Entente becomes Triple Entente: Great Britain, France, Russia. Great Britain makes agreements with Russia on Asia, etc. Germany tries to break this alliance but only strengthens it.

1908. Austria annexes Bosnia and Herzegovina, angering Serbia, which hoped to form a Slavic Union in the Balkans. Serbia becomes the focus for independence movements by Croatian and Slovenian nationalists. Russia protests, but is too weak to act. A series of Balkan wars follows in which Russia becomes a partner of Serbia.

1910. Death of Edward VII. The German Kaiser comes to gloat at the death of “The Great Satan.” He saw Edward as the architect of all Germany's woes because of Edward's friendship with France, and thus also with Russia. (See a wonderful description of Edward's funeral in the opening pages of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August.)

1911. Second Moroccan crisis when the German ship Panther visits Agadir. Inflammatory speeches in London. French send in force to maintain order. Outbreak of Tripolitan War between Turkey and Italy.

1912. Outbreak of First Balkan War: Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece vs. Turkey. Ends with Treaty of London.

1913. Second Balkan crisis when Serbia attacks Albania. Russia warns Serbia to wait, not take on Austria.

wilhelm II1914 General Situation: Huge standing armies; fear; competitive and distrustful attitudes on all sides. Preparations are based upon the expectation of war. Mobilization itself will be seen as an act of war: the movement of millions into uniform heightens the sense of agitation and nervousness. The widespread assumption that war would come became a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Bismarck: "Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.") The situation was exacerbated by super-patriotic press institutions and sensationalism (in America it was called "yellow journalism.") "Once the wheels of mobilization began to turn, no brake could retard them, no wheel could steer them."—Liddell Hart. "Militarism gone mad"—Woodrow Wilson.

It should be noted that many of the diplomatic agreements described briefly above were executed in secret, without the knowledge of the populations of the nations concerned.  Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, presiding over the Second German Empire, proclaimed in 1871, blustered about the European stage like a peacock. The Germans had deposed Emperor Napoleon III, and France had gone through a tumultuous period trying to establish a republic and were ready for revenge. The Tsarist regime in Russia, nervous because of revolutionary activities that had led to the outbreak of violence in 1905, was hoping to find a cause to rally the Russian people behind the throne.  Great Britain, traditionally aloof, was now aligned with France and Russia, leaving Germany with her Austrian and Italian allies concerned about fighting a two-front war. The balloon was about to go up.

The world was wound very tight in the summer of 1914. Ever since the demise of Bismarck and the increasing recklessness of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, Europe had been growing increasingly tense. When King Edward VII of England, Kaiser Wilhelm's uncle, died in 1910, Wilhelm celebrated. He felt that Great Britain had stood between Germany and the sun, and had been furious upon learning that Great Britain had aligned herself with France and Russia. Wilhelm was spoiling for a fight. France was anxious to reclaim territory lost in the Franco-Prussian War, and Great Britain had guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium.

When Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo in June of 1914, the system of alliances, connections and conflicting interests was stretched to the breaking point. After more than a month of futile negotiations, the “damned foolishness in the Balkans” which had been predicted by Bismarck finally blew up. Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia; Serbia was supported by Russia, and Germany had offered a “blank check” to its ally, Austria. When the declarations of war began, the fragile peace unraveled quickly.

1914: Events of that Fateful Year

  • June: Assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo by the Serbian Black Hand, a nationalist group that wants Serbia out from under the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  • Austria believed the Serbians knew of plot but did nothing; the Serbian press was gleeful over the incident.
  • In Austria, the assassination pleased authorities, as well as some radicals, as Franz Ferdinand was a known reformer. Thus the hard-liners were happy to see him out of the way.
  • Austria had occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina to stop the “pan-Slav” nationalist movement within the Empire; now Austria saw an opportunity to stop Serbia once and for all.
  • Russia could not stand by and do nothing without giving up prestige in the Balkans. As an ally and supporter of Serbia, Russia had to get involved, which had implications for Franco-German relations as well.
  • Momentum began building for war, aided by necessities of mobilization—no nation could afford to let potential enemies get a head start. (See Liddell Hart quote above.)
  • Germany offered “complete support” to Austria, since the Germany-Austria link was still the mainstay of German foreign policy.
  • Austria drafted an ultimatum to Serbia that was supposed to be unacceptable, yet the Serbian answer convinced Germany that “all cause of war drops away.” Germany told Austria to “Hold!” but the German General Staff advised the Austrian military: “Prepare!”
  • Russia was given blank a check from the French, who feared getting into war with Germany alone. France saw a war with Russia on her side as an opportunity to get  revenge for the Franco-Prussian humiliation of 1871.
  • Great Britain offered to negotiate a settlement on July 26, but it was too late. The position taken by Great Britain was that Belgian neutrality had to be respected. When Germany declared war of Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany.
  • The Austrian Emperor was persuaded to issue a Declaration of War because “Serbia has fired on Austria,” which was not true. When the message was sent out, however, that portion was deleted, but the message was signed nevertheless.
  • By August 4 Germany Austria, Serbia, Russia, France and Great Britain were all at war. The lights went out all over Europe and a terrible darkness descended.

It would be four years before Americans started fighting in France, but the war impacted America from the beginning.

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